Memoirs of a Geisha (Dreamworks, R)

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The choreography is stunning, the landscape breathtaking, the costumes sumptuous

This could well be the first time a major Hollywood studio has produced a film with an entirely Asian cast—or at least the first production that doesn’t involve flying fists and leaping roundhouses.

It’s not the first time, however, that a studio has interpreted a foreign culture for the masses. Previous efforts have relied on the all-American marketability of such luminaries as Tom Cruise (The Last Samurai) and Brad Pitt (Seven Years in Tibet). In this case, the Gion district of 1920s Japan was constructed in Thousands Oaks, Calif., all of the characters speak English with thick accents, and none of the three leading actresses are actually Japanese.

That said, Memoirs of a Geisha is a brilliant film, and any creative liberties taken in the name of convention are quickly forgiven. From the opening frame, the movie transports us to another world, where we remain mesmerized until the closing credits. The celluloid unfolds like a tapestry while staying remarkably true to Arthur Golding’s best-selling novel.

Much credit goes to director Rob Marshall, who takes a respite from the frenzied pacing of his last effort, the multi-Oscar winning Chicago. Here, he opts for story and subtlety rather than camera wizardry yet produces an equally worthy effort in which the cinematography alone is worth the price of admission. From sweaty sumo matches to spellbinding dance numbers, from pre–World War II to its aftermath, no history is left out, no detail omitted. The choreography is stunning, the landscape breathtaking, and the sumptuous costumes must have taken a team of seamstresses to create.

Zhang Ziyi (Hero, House of Flying Daggers) stars at Sayuri, the daughter of a fisherman who miraculously transforms herself from slave girl to geisha, one of the legendary face-painted, kimono-wearing entertainers that have long been figures of fascination in the Western world. Michele Yeoh (Tomorrow Never Dies) is Mameha, Sayuri’s mentor, determined to see her young protégé succeed while evading the traps laid by rival geisha Hatsumomo (Gong Li). Rounding out the cast is Ken Watanabe as the charming businessman whom Sayuri dares to love in a world where love has no place.

Equal parts biography, period piece, and love story, a film of this magnitude requires nothing short of brilliance from its actors. Fortunately Ziyi shows tremendous range as both a trembling adolescent and a professional seductress. It helps that Ziyi and Yeoh are both dancers, and that the actresses had worked together in a previous film (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). All four stars—Ziyi, Yeoh, Li, and Watanabe—are on their way to becoming Hollywood A-listers.

As with many blockbusters this season, Memoirs of a Geisha clocks in at more than two and a half hours. Anyone looking for something other than a long, slow, artsy drama will likely get lost in the weblike layers while trying to figure out the heavily accented dialogue. Highbrow enthusiasts and fans of the book, however, will be delighted.

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